Hutus held in 'worst prison in world'

7,000 suspects of Rwanda massacre are kept in jail built for 400

IF, as Jean-Paul Sartre had it, "Hell is other people", then Gitarama prison must be the most infernal place on earth. It is the most crowded penitentiary in the world, and probably the most horrific. Crammed into a walled space half the size of a football pitch, 7,000 men are detained in conditions which, were they cattle in Europe, would have animal rights activists up in arms.

But this is Rwanda and in the aftermath of last year's genocide, in which at least half a million people died, there is little sympathy for the fate of Hutus charged with their slaughter.

Such is the overcrowding in Gitarama, a prison built for 400 inmates, that each man has only half a square yard of space. The women's quarters offer minimal facilities. In the open courtyard, where the bulk of prisoners languish, most have no choice but to stand day and night. The revelations of a report just published by the aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres are alarming enough in themselves: one in eight prisoners in Gitarama has died during the past nine months.

Among referrals of inmates to a nearby hospital, 38 per cent are suffering from trauma wounds, including burst eardrums and bites caused by other prisoners; and 41 per cent are suffering from rotting feet from standing barefoot on the wet and dirty ground. Many have had toes, feet and legs amputated as a result.

Little, however - not even the swell of human voices nor the lion-house stench enveloping the immediate environs - prepares the visitor for the reality of this prison in central Rwanda. The heaving sea of faces and crush of semi-naked bodies gives little initial hope of penetrating much beyond the iron gate when it is unbarred by a prison warder. Inside a path somehow opens and the visitor is swallowed up. Arms like tendrils reach out to beg the attention of the newcomer; legs covered with suppurating sores are thrust forward in supplication.

"Aidez-nous," says one man with a thin, ravaged face. "Ce n'est pas un prison, c'est un tombeau."

Indeed, Gitarama is a grave for many of those who are confined within its high, ochre brick walls. More than 1,000 detainees have died of suffocation, disease and neglect since last September. Four men attempting to escape last month were shot dead and three were wounded.

Except for a hospital building for prisoners suffering from dysentery, Gitarama lacks proper medical facilities. The hospitalhas a capacity of only 25 cases and there are several patients to each befouled mattress. "The conditions here are completely inhumane. It's urgent that they are improved," said Brigitte Troyon of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is providing medical and other assistance to Rwanda's prisons. "Half a dozen people are dying in Gitarama every day. If an epidemic breaks out there's no knowing how many could die."

There is only one full-time doctor assigned to the prison. He is assisted by eight healthcare workers. With the incidence of skin infections, wounds and malnutrition increasing they are woefully unequal to their terrible task.

All services in the local hospital at Kabgayi are oversubscribed, so men who should be receiving emergency treatment are left to rot in the dank, seething courtyard. Moving through the ragged mass of humanity, one has constantly to avoid stepping on the bare, bloated feet of men forced to stand for interminable hours exposed to the elements. Those too weak to support themselves have slipped to the ground where they squat in filth.

Many foot sores have become gangrenous so that toes have turned black and rotten and fallen off. Advanced septicaemia has coloured some faces a ghastly yellow. Amid the choking smoke of the cooking area, men stir oil drums of beans and maize over open fires to provide the inmates with a single meal per day.

At the extremity of the courtyard is a concrete block which houses the longest-serving prisoners. Its cellar is a rank, reeking Hades into which hundreds of men are packed in complete darkness. The stairs and corridors are filled with inmates who dare not sit down for fear of being crushed.

The lucky ones have managed to stake out a space on the floors of the "dormitories" where they can lie down. But such is the overcrowding that even the latrines (of which there are only 20) are occupied by recumbent figures. As men slumber and defecate side by side, others sluice themselves in the outflow of an open sewer.

With a prison population of more than 48,000 and limited accommodation facilities, thegovernment has been forced to stop making arrests for crimes of genocide. The opening of provisional detention centres is being considered and an extension is being built at Gitarama. But the real cause of overcrowding - the inertia of judicial proceedings - shows no sign of resolution.

A year and a quarter after the start of the massacres, neither the international nor the Rwandan tribunal has completed a single genocide case due to a lack ofcash and logistical resources. Only a handful of detainees - many of them arrested on the evidence of a single witness - have had any access to legal representation.

"It's possible some are innocent," concedes Lt-Col Charles Kayonga, commander of Gitarama. "I'm not saying our methods were always thorough. But the vast majority of these people are killers."

So pervasive is Rwanda's sense of loss after the genocide and so overwhelming its need for retribution, that neither inhumane penal conditions nor possible miscarriages of justice impinge greatly on the national consciousness. More than two million Hutus, among them countless murderers, have escaped justice by fleeing to refugee camps in neighbouring countries or to Europe. The suffering of a few thousand whom the Tutsi authorities have been able to apprehend counts for little against the agony of the dead and the grief of the survivors.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?